In the wake of third-wave feminism exists a deeper understanding of identity, bringing on a slew of labels to express ourselves with. Though each has its own niche differences, the sense of home lies within the language.
Language itself is ephemeral, changing from generation to generation. As each new generation of kids grows up and searches for their unique identities, their lingo adapts and develops.
Teens today use jargon rife with gems like “this is lit” and “that’s facts,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone older than 25 who wholly understands the minutiae of what makes a song a banger versus a bop. Concurrently, the powerful “well, I never” has been lost to us.
Part of living in a more “woke” era is the gain of new terminology and labels. With a grand elaboration of our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity underway, we have new ways to describe them — and ultimately, ourselves and each other.
But how on Earth can we possibly accommodate the people who are just seeking attention with their weird labels and intentionally making life difficult for the “normal” folk?
While the ignorance behind such complaints is another discussion altogether, the answer is deceptively simple and lies within one of the most elementary components of our language — pronouns. Yes, you really can get by with only minor adjustments to how you use some of the earliest words you learned.
We’re all well-versed in the usage of he/him and she/her pronouns. Since the majority of Earth’s population identifies within the socially-constructed gender binary, we get a lot of daily practice out of those ones. It’s the pronouns that we were never formally taught that some find tricky.
So what should you say? How do you refer to people who haven’t told you their preferred pronouns?
Simply put, use they/them. Gender-neutral, grammatically-
correct and respectful, this is a perfect catch-all in cases where you aren’t sure of someone’s pronouns or gender identity. In fact, everyone already uses they/them pronouns in regular conversation.
Picture this — you’ve just grabbed your go-to Starbucks order and are about to sit down to start some well-needed midterm studying. When you get there, you see a pair of earbuds left on the table. Kindly, you take them to the barista and explain that someone forgot their earbuds.
Right then, you used “their” to refer to a person of unknown gender identity. It’s in a proper sentence, you’re referring to a single person, and it makes sense. A gendered pronoun could also have fit, but it just feels better to phrase it with “their.”
Where, then, does “his or her” fall in? Used frequently in lengthy sections of text attempting to be gender-neutral, this series of words is perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not only does it read abhorrently when used repetitively in a paragraph, but it enforces deep-seated ideas of male supremacy, with men addressed first.
Try forming a sentence where “his or her” fits but flip the order. You’re left with “her or his,” which — though superficially more mindful of women — sounds much more fake.
These failed attempts at inclusivity through amalgamations of binary pronouns just don’t cut it, no matter how you slice it. Whether you feign “wokeness” by putting the female pronoun first or just fall into the patriarchal regular and frame “her” as an afterthought, you exclude the growing margin of people who don’t fit either.
The discussion of preferred gender pronouns extends much further than the three discussed here. Neopronouns, and even the desire to be referred to exclusively by name, are both finding footholds, and this can feel confusing for people not exposed to these pronouns though, but it doesn’t have to be.
They/them pronouns are respectful and avoid possibly harmful assumptions. Be it a new coworker, a classmate, a server, a stranger or anyone else whose preferred pronouns you don’t know, be kind and gracious with your use of pronouns. They’ll thank you.
Graphic: Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor